WASHINGTON - When a rebel base in Ecuador was bombed with devastating effect last weekend, Colombia joined countries such as Israel, Turkey and the United States in claiming self-defense as it hit terrorist targets beyond its national borders.
Many Colombian and U.S. officials say the Colombians did nothing wrong by hitting a base of the guerrilla group known as the FARC in the first cross-border armed incursion in Latin America since the Peru-Ecuador border conflict in 1995.
"It certainly seems to me ... that the Colombian government had the right to take action against a terrorist who was striking at them from a camp in Ecuador,'' Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an independent Democrat, said at a hearing Thursday.
But Ecuador and Venezuela have claimed the strikes were illegal, and many experts agree that they might be right.
As an Organization of American States mission heads to the conflict zone next week to investigate the bombing, the case underscores the thorny legal complexities involved when governments seek to balance national sovereignty issues with the right of nations to defend themselves from terrorist attacks.
"Almost regardless of the provocation, Colombia cannot justify a military and physical violation of Ecuador's territorial integrity, so long as the government of Ecuador is not directly engaged in an aggressive action against the government of Colombia, '' said Mark Schneider, with the International Crisis Group, a London-based organization that tracks international trouble spots. "Even then they should respond with diplomatic tools, not military force.''
A top Colombian guerrilla leader and at least 16 gunmen died in the March 1 bombing, which was a terrifying blow to Latin America's most enduring insurgency.
Colombia followed its bombing with a military raid into Ecuador to gather evidence, which even the Colombians said violated Ecuador's territorial sovereignty. But Colombia maintains that its initial airstrike was justified and that Venezuela and Ecuador should be held accountable for harboring terrorists.
Colombian officials argue that their country was fired upon from the Ecuadorean side of the border, meaning that its action was in self-defense. The Ecuadoreans deny this, noting that most of the dead guerrillas were in their pajamas. They also said that the Colombian aircraft fired from within Ecuadorean airspace.
Colombia said it told the Ecuadorean government on 10 occasions, dating back to January 2006, to clear the FARC camps. Colombia's ambassador to the OAS, Camilo Ospina, told journalists Thursday that officials did not go public with its plans "because if you tell a criminal you're going to pick him up, he runs away.''
Colombia also said that Ecuador and Venezuela are violating post-Sept. 11 U.N. and OAS agreements to deny haven to terrorists.
Evidence produced by computers seized in the raids suggest that Ecuador not only knew of the FARC camps but also was negotiating deals with the group, which the United States and the European Union have declared a terrorist organization. The Colombians said there is evidence that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was providing the FARC with $300 million.
The case has some loose parallels with recent strikes by other nations. Israel's cross-border attacks against the Palestinians and Hezbollah are different because Israel is attacking a foreign, not domestic, enemy. U.S. strikes against al Qaida also target foreigners, the experts say, and recent missile attacks in Somalia and Pakistan had the tacit support of governments there.
Most agree that the U.S. actions in Afghanistan complied with international laws, while the Iraq invasion did not.
The Colombian case most resembles the Turkish incursions into northern Iraq to clear Kurdish rebels, said Schneider. That attack is also wrong, he said.
Colombia, he said, should have taken its case to the OAS, the U.N. Security Council and even The Hague-based International Court of Justice, which determines whether nations are violating international treaties.
"Frankly, I think unfortunately Ecuador has a stronger argument,'' said Frank Mora, a professor of national security strategy at the National War College.
Experts say countries can legally attack foreign terrorists or guerrillas within very narrowly defined contexts, such as when there is a hot pursuit or in self-defense, which Colombia might argue before the OAS mission.
But the Colombians seem to have set aside the armed option for now.
Ospina said Colombia would use "diplomatic action.'' If a country is shown to back terrorists, it would "use the judicial option'' -- meaning The Hague-based international tribunals.